We’re Not Artists: The Craft of Influencing Decision Makers

6 Min Read

It’s frustrating. You put weeks into careful research and analysis, rehearse a big presentation, and the manager spends the whole time looking at his Blackberry. 

What does it take to impress business people?

It’s frustrating. You put weeks into careful research and analysis, rehearse a big presentation, and the manager spends the whole time looking at his Blackberry. 

What does it take to impress business people?

I’ve spoken to thousands of business people: executives and staff, from companies large and small, in big groups and in private conversation.  After conducting thousands of hours of presentations, I can safely say that I can hold an audience’s attention better than most.  People have spent millions of dollars based on my recommendations. Once in a while, I even get a fan letter.  But if I’m waiting for executives to hang on my every word, I’ll be waiting a long, long time.

Decision makers are not going to give us their full attention. Period. The first step on the road to greater influence is getting over that.

Understand that your presentation is not a performance, not a sermon, not a campaign. In those situations, the speaker is the most recognized, most influential person in the room. In business presentations, the speaker is not the center of the action. The real focus is on the power, and the power lies not with the presenter, but with one or a few decision makers.

A performer, an artist, can be the focus of attention.

Recently, I attended a remarkable concert. Claire Chase played Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Even if you don’t recognize the title, you would certainly recognize the music – it’s a famous piece of organ music, and it has been featured in loads of films – think “phantom playing the organ.” It’s a powerful composition, even more so because of the power of the massive pipe organ.

Claire Chase doesn’t play the pipe organ. She plays the flute. A tiny woman, nothing about the performer or her instrument appears to be a match for an iconic work of power music.

She walked fearlessly onto the stage before a hall packed with people, picked up her flute and belted out a flawless and nuanced performance that filled the room with sound and held the rapt attention of everyone present. 

When the music ended, a moment passed, just a moment. Then, all at once, there was another remarkable sound – people, hundreds of people, gasped all at once. This is the remarkable power of art.

Nothing I do will ever drive five hundred people to gasp at once.

Business presentations focus not on the presenter, but the decision maker.

We are not artists, we’re skilled labor. We do honorable, useful work that can earn us a decent living and a modicum of respect, but we don’t have the power to move men’s souls. We can take data and find useful information in it. We can share that information and help business, government and nonprofits work better.  We just can’t get famous for it.

Next time you prepare a presentation, begin with a simple question – what do you want the decision maker to do?  Does it really matter if the boss pays rapt attention to your presentation? Not at all. The only thing that matters is the decision.

Repeat: the only thing that matters is the decision. Keeping that in mind, what are you going to do?

You’re going to push for the right decision from the very beginning of your presentation. Why? You must start getting the point across before the decision maker’s attention is diverted.

You’re going to emphasize the best and most complete information you have to support the decision. Why? The decision maker isn’t motivated (or qualified) to sift through a mountain of material to find the gems.

You’re going to repeat, repeat and repeat. You’ll vary the way you say it, but you will make the same point several times over. Why? The decision maker isn’t paying full attention, and may not get the concept the first time, anyway.

You’re going to omit material that doesn’t support your main point, close with a summary that leads only to the right decision, and provide a similar written summary.  (By now, you don’t need me to explain why.)

Do these things well and consistently. You won’t get famous. You won’t even get rapt attention. You certainly won’t hear anyone gasp. Still, more often than not, you’ll get what you really want – the right decision.


You’ll find more on influencing decision makers in these posts:

Defending Your Analytics: Handling Hecklers  http://bit.ly/smartdata002

Talk Analytics with Executives: 4 Things You Must Understand http://bit.ly/smartdata001


©2011 Meta S. Brown

Photo: David Michalek

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